What is a Good Novel? Modernism is a generic term applied to the beginnings of the “new literature” that came with the twentieth century. In Great Britain, it followed Victorian period, steeped with grandiose subject matter and moralizing, didactic themes and lessons. In 1901 Arnold Bennet published The “Average Reader” and the Recipe for Popularity. He describes in this short essay somewhat satirically, what to do when one wants to write a novel that will have mass appeal. In this essay it will be supposed that the goal of the novel is either to entertain, enlighten, or to do both.
This depending on whether it is a purely entertaining novel, or one that is written with some aesthetic technique or value with an effect beyond mere entertainment. It is worth noting that the contemporary British novelist Anthony Burgess has said writing novels should entertain the novelist more than any one during the composition stage. This makes sense to me and I can apply the same maxim to writing scholarly papers for academic merit. When enjoyment in the process of creation exists, then perhaps this spirit is transferred to the reception by the art-patron. I will take for granted that the serious fiction-writer has a harder time getting money for his or her writing than the popular novelist, who writes perhaps with a formula or with simple, easy-to-understand sentence structure.
My example for this (the post-modern era), Danielle Steele. I have never read a book by Ms. Steele, and I do not think I ever will. Danielle Steele will probably never win a Nobel prize for literature. She will not be immortalized by her writing like Shakespeare.
She will not have scholars praising her works in two-hundred years with terms like “great” and “masterpiece.” She writes entertaining novels directed at middle-aged white females, and she gets on the best-seller lists a lot. I cannot know if Steele has ever read Bennetts essay, but I am sure some of his proofs ring true in the tale of her success. One of the reasons I am an English major is that I want to be directed in my reading towards great works. I hope to gain from this reading stimulation a sharper, more clearly defined sense of myself and the world around me. Bennett says that “the average reader likes an imposing plot, heroical characters, and fine actions. Grandeur of subjects will always be his first demand.” In his book Anna of the Five Towns, I find none of these features to be prominent, besides perhaps Annas generous inheritance, and I did not consider this book to be of any literary value whatsoever; to me it was not entertaining or enlightening.
So without looking to be an “average reader,” by his terms, I must have fallen into the pit of slipshod literacy? Bennett makes a distinction between the minority and the majority of the reading public. The minority, in his eyes the more important, and thus the more apt to read more seriously, well-written books, are the more artistic and scholarly, and live in a constant state of conflict with the majority. The majority, which buys books and enjoys them, have to defend their favorite reading “with what skill they can muster, making up in brute force what they lack in adroitness.” Bennett is generally saying the members of this majority are a big ball of sensory perception, if you have the right stuff to feed them, theyll fork over the dough for what you have. He goes on to describe what this food is, which he has ostensibly ascertained the consistency through his own experiences reading those novels that were popular and those that were not. I had difficulty accepting most of what is promulgated in this essay simply because of my low opinion of his own work.
I think the truly gifted writer has a way of transcending this majority versus minority dichotomy of readership. Shakespeare is considered to have employed a gargantuan vocabulary when creating his plays and poetry, and he enjoyed massive success in his writing career. Perhaps when writing his essay, Bennett was trying to heal the bruises of a rampant inferiority complex, and consequently was justifying his lack of great success by creating figments such as an artistic minority, lovers of Bennets books, refined in every way, and experts on aesthetic quality. It has been my personal opinion that the best books are those that are the most engaging. I once had a conversation with an English professor about one of my favorite authors. The only opinion she added to the conversation, though she had read many of the authors books, was that he was “very engaging.” This left me wondering.
The reason one picks up a novel is to be engaged, to be engrossed in the details of this product of imagination. It is the job of the novelist to engage, whether the quality (however that is to be defined) is of whatever grade. If the novel is not engaging, then what kind of literary value could it have, in fact what kind of value could it have at all. In the process of reading a novel, once the reader has become engaged with the material, he or she hands over their criticism and trusts that the same being who interested them so will do a good job of continuing to do so. In my opinion, it is the magic of fiction, and gives the skilled author the freedom to write in order entertain him or herself.
It is when Bennett comes to his description of the “defects of our [average] readers taste” that the essay begins to show hints of offensiveness. He says “if he is not titillated with reasonable frequency, then nothing is well.” The word titillated could be used interchangeably with the word engaged, and I think that when an author fails to “titillate with reasonable frequency,” then the defect is in the writer, not the reader. Bennett is trying to show that this majority has a “blind-spot” for beauty, but how can he say this, presumably writing as a member of the scholarly minority. What most consider beautiful cannot rationally be considered to be inherently ugly, and conversely, what most consider to be ugly cannot be considered to be inherently beautiful. These questions of aesthetics are almost beaten into the ground in this epoch when the cause of art is always so frequently questioned rather than the experience of actual artworks.
It is not my intention in this paper to condemn Arnold Bennett. Some of his ideas mirror my own; especially when he comes to his last defect: The average reader does not care to have the basic ideas of his existence disturbed. He may be emotionally aroused, but mentally he must be soothed, lulled, drugged. He is capable of a personal animus against the novelist who with too much suddenness invites him to readjust his scheme of things. If the job of the serious (or meant-to-be-considered-serious) novel be understood as enlightenment, then how can it not bring some sense of nuance into the readers world-view. My view of the defect of popular contemporary fiction is the sense that when a book is finished, then so are the ideas, without a learning experience or the phenomenon of “food for thought.” Like a fine wine, a novels aftertaste should be as important as the initial sensory stimulus.
It is not my assertion in the writing of this paper that in order to write about what makes beautiful art, more specifically a great novel, you must be able to write one, but Bennetts role as a novelist certainly puts him in a burdensome position when writing on such subject matter. When he states as part of a theory he believes that “the highest modern expression of literary art need not appeal in vain to the average reader.” This is certainly true, without qualifications. There is nothing wrong with appealing only to those more intellectually prone, but the “highest expression” of art should always be universally and inherently “good.”.